Genre Theory And Implicit Contracts

Today, I am continuing to run excerpts from the thesis submitted this week by CMS graduate students. Alec Austin’s thesis centers around the different kinds of expectations framed by different kinds of media and among other things, he includes discussions of House M.D., Veronica Mars, Magic: The Gathering, DC’s 52 and Marvel’s Civil Wars series. In each case, he manages to make original contributions to genre theory as well as shed light on the texts in questions. Austin’s focus on expectations and implicit contracts has emerged in part from the work he has done for the past two years as a researcher for our Convergence Culture Consortium for which he wrote white papers on product placement, digital rights management, and most recently, on Second Life and other virtual worlds. He is leaving us to go work in the games industry and to write science fiction on the side.

The following selection comes from the introduction of the thesis which lays out his ideas about the expectations that readers bring to the work, which he characterizes in terms of an implicit contract. The idea of a genre contract is one that runs through genre theory but he is able to develop it further than I had seen before.

Implicit Contracts

Alec Austin

Everyone wants something from their entertainment. Whether they’re looking for overblown special effects or nuanced characterization, a climactic conclusion or an coherent ongoing narrative, an audience’s satisfaction with an entertainment product is dependent on how well their expectations were fulfilled. Understanding the relationship between the purveyor of an entertainment property and that property’s audience as a contractual one does a great deal to explain why audiences enjoy and accept certain creative choices and reject and are angered by others.

The idea of an implicit contract being formed between the creator or purveyor of a work of entertainment and its audience is not a new one. Creators and critics of fiction and film have been aware of the need to entertain audiences without boring or distracting them for quite some time. The science fiction author Larry Niven described the contract between author and reader in the following terms:

The reader has certain rights… He’s entitled to be entertained, instructed, amused; maybe all three. If he quits in the middle, or puts the book down feeling that his time has been wasted, you’re in violation.

Damon Knight used similar language to describe the contract between author and reader:

There is an implied contract between the author and the reader that goes something like this: Give me your time and pay your money, and I’ll let you experience what it’s like to be

∑ A trapper in the North Woods

∑ An explorer in the Martian Desert

∑ A young woman in love with an older man

∑ A dying cancer patient…

You must look hard at the offer you are making: Would you accept it, if you were the reader?

While Knight and Niven describe the implicit contract largely in terms of engaging and entertaining the audience through explicit authorial choices, some film theorists have taken the metaphor further. Both Thomas Schatz and Henry Jenkins have used the metaphor of a contract to discuss the relationship between media producers and audiences. Schatz described film genres as a tacit contract between audiences and media producers, which creates a “reciprocal studio-audience relationship” , but Jenkins argues that Schatz goes on to undermine the reciprocal dimension of the contract by privileging “the generic knowledge of the filmmaker over the activity of the spectator… [he] gives us little sense of the audience’s expectations and how they originate… What Hollywood delivers is presumed to be what the audience wanted” . Jenkins’ implication is that the relationship between audiences and media producers is more fraught with complications than Schatz acknowledges, though he does not explicitly propose an alternative model of the audience/producer contract.

I believe, as Jenkins does, that the exchange which audiences and the purveyors of entertainment are engaged in is more complicated than it is represented as by Knight, Niven, or Schatz. In my previous work on the implicit contract, I described the functioning of the implicit contract in the following terms:

Whenever someone picks up a magazine, turns on the TV, or goes to a movie, they have certain expectations of the experience they’ll receive in exchange for their time, attention, and money. What those expectations are depends on both their knowledge of the media form and the specific content they’re pursuing. (For example, anyone turning on a commercial TV channel expects that the show they’re watching will be interrupted by ad breaks, and that the ads will not intrude into the show.)

The typical exchange involved in entertainment media might be modeled thusly:

The Audience offers the Provider

∑ Their time

∑ Their attention

∑ And sometimes (e.g. movies, cable TV) their money.

The Provider offers the Audience

∑ Entertainment

∑ And the delivery structure they expect.

Whenever an entertainment provider violates the implicit contract created by the audience’s expectations (through intrusive advertising or clumsy product placement, for example), they risk alienating their audience.

This description of the implicit contract between audiences and media providers complicates and refines Niven, Knight, and Schatz’s visions of the implicit contract by addressing questions of presentation and non-narrative structure (which can have a significant impact on an audience member’s satisfaction with an entertainment product), but it still does not tell us very much about the actual contract between audience members and media providers and why it works the way it does. If we are to understand the nature of that contract more clearly, and by extension, how the expectations of audiences serve to structure their reactions to entertainment products, we must turn to legal theory and a clearer understanding of how contracts in general function.

What is a Contract?

On a definitional level, a contract is an agreement (explicit or implied) between two parties in which each takes on the obligation to provide the other with some form of consideration. An arrangement where one party provides the other with something for nothing can’t be a contract, as there is no exchange–it is either a gift (if it was given freely) or theft/extortion (if it was taken without consent or given as a result of coercion).

If we pause to deconstruct this, the following points become evident:

∑ A contract is based on the mutual exchange of goods and/or services.

∑ A contract (whether explicit or implied) creates an obligation on the part of both parties to fulfill its terms.

∑ The purpose of a contract is to ensure that an exchange does not become one-sided (where one party benefits while the other receives no consideration).

With the preceding points in mind, it becomes clear why the contract model is applicable to the relationship between media audiences and media providers, as the exchange involved in entertainment media has already been described.

Contracts Implied in Fact

Legal studies recognizes two types of contract which are willingly agreed on: Express contracts and contracts implied in fact. An express contract is “a written or oral agreement whose terms explicitly state the basis for consideration” , and even for entertainment products with End-User License Agreements (and even those are problematic, as EULAs are non-negotiable and oft-ignored), the understanding between audience members and purveyors of entertainment is rarely so formal and explicit. The contract implied in fact, in which “the parties have entered into no formal agreement but comport themselves in relation to one another in was that could only be explained by the existence of the requisite contractual intentions” is a much better model for understanding the relationship: Audience members would not waste their time or attention on an entertainment product unless it had been presented in a way that suggested it would entertain them. While such contracts have no legal force, the perception that their terms have been violated will typically cause both social and economic consequences. (To wit, audience members who feel they have been cheated are likely to be vocal about their unhappiness, and will stop giving their money to content providers which they feel have treated them unfairly.)

The Contract as Discourse

The alert reader will have noticed that the previous paragraph dealt with the perception that the purveyor/audience contract had been violated. This is because with an implicit contract, each audience member’s subjective experience of the entertainment will determine whether they feel the contract’s terms have been fulfilled or not.

This may seem uncomfortably subjective to those accustomed to thinking of contracts and the law as fixed and formal structures, in which discourse plays no part, but as Stanley Fish argues in “The Law Wishes to Have a Formal Existence”, the formalism of law itself is a discursive construct based on the fiction that contextual knowledge is not required to interpret the “unambiguous” terms of a contract:

[A]n instrument that seems clear and unambiguous on its face seems so because “extrinsic evidence”–information about the conditions of its production including the situation and state of mind of the contracting parties, etc.–is already in place an assumed as a background; that which the parol evidence rule [a rule by which extrinsic evidence is cannot be used to interpret, vary or add to the terms of a contract] is designed to exclude is already , and necessarily, invoked the moment writing become intelligible… the law is continually creating and recreating itself.

By using examples of cases in which the idea of “trade usage” was invoked to interpret the period of “June-Aug” to exclude the month of August, and in which the delivery of steel measuring 37 inches in length was ruled to fulfill the terms of a contract that stipulated steel measuring 36 inches in length to make the point that, Fish makes it clear that contract law, for all its desire to be formal and internally consistent, regularly has its course determined by the rhetorical prowess of litigants.

The Terms of Discourse in Entertainment

Of course, the discourse between audiences and purveyors of entertainment does not function in the same way as that between the parties to a legal contract. While the parties to a legal contract may debate what the terms of their agreement mean before bringing their dispute before an arbitrator or a judge for a binding decision, the purveyors of entertainment have no such option. There are no legal authorities they can turn to that determine which interpretation of the contract is correct, and in media that aren’t iterative or serial in form, the most significant contribution to the discourse which creators and purveyors of entertainment can make is their work itself. In such cases, if audience members are dissatisfied with an entertainment product, the purveyors of that product have no reliable means of responding to that dissatisfaction.

When working in iterative media, such as TV or comics, which regularly release new content, the terms of discourse are slightly different. While creators working in such a medium can respond to audience dissatisfaction by changing the content of later work, there is inevitably some sort of time delay involved such a “response”, given the lead time necessary to produce content for serial release. As such, even creators that work in iterative or serial media are likely to feel powerless or frustrated when audiences interpret or react to their work in a way the work’s purveyors see as misguided or unsympathetic.

Consequences of Contract Violation

The idea that the creators of a work of entertainment are powerless cuts both ways, of course. While the purveyors of an entertainment property may lack control over how their work is interpreted, the audience for that property has no control over its creation. Furthermore, without an enforcement mechanism for perceived violations of the implicit contract, audience members must take on the enforcement role themselves.

In practice, audiences have three means by which they can attempt to redress perceived contract violations. The first is dissatisfaction, which manifests itself both in lessened engagement with an entertainment property and complaints made to other fans and the property’s creators. The second is withdrawal, which manifests itself in the loss of the audience member as a viewer or customer. And the final means is boycotting, which manifests itself in an audience member actively trying to dissuade others from supporting or engaging with a property.

Audience members typically become dissatisfied with an entertainment property due to perceived contract violations that are relatively minor (repeated continuity gaffes, an unearned happy ending, etc.). Such minor violations erode the audience’s engagement with the property, but the damage can be repaired over time by supplying content that delivers the kind of entertainment which the audience desires. At the same time, the cumulative effect of repeated contract violations can lead audiences to withdraw from a property, as can a single contract violation of sufficient magnitude.

Some might challenge the idea that minor erosions of an audience’s engagement with a property actually matter (at least until they result in the loss of a customer). To counter this notion, I will draw on my own work developing E.P. Thompson and Henry Jenkins’ idea of the moral economy:

If a purchase supports an individual or company that has treated an audience member well, that purchase has added value for the audience member. Conversely, a creator or company that has treated an audience member poorly will encounter resistance when trying to make a sale. Audience consensus on the legitimacy and sincerity of a rights holder’s behavior has a significant impact on the quality of the word of mouth they receive.

In addition to its obvious economic impact, the moral economy has an emotional dimension as audience members develop relationships with creators or rights-holders. Over the long term, “legitimate” behavior and sincere engagement can cause audience members to become personally invested in your success. Consistently behaving in ways the audience deems illegitimate can create resentment and an environment where audience members will become equally invested in your failure.

When viewed as part of the moral economy, minor violations of the implicit contract have a clear effect, as they create audience resistance to a creator or company’s products and may well lead to boycotts, where audience members who have been “burned” (typically those who were once highly engaged with a property before one or more contract violations transformed their engagement into outrage and a sense of betrayal) decide that withdrawal from a property is an insufficient response to the violation of the implicit contract, and choose to actively undermine the property’s success.

Creators and producers who are concerned about the risk of triggering such an audience backlash over a perceived violation of the implicit contract should be aware that marketing and creative choices can do a great deal to shape both a property’s audience and the terms on which it will be received. As such, the purveyors of entertainment possess significantly more power to influence how their work is interpreted than a naïve observer might imagine (though not as much as theorists like Schatz believe). This point becomes particularly clear in light of the structuring functions of familiarity and genre conventions.


  1. Laurie Cubbison says:

    Extremely interesting argument! I can see this moral economy at work in the anime community in particular, as audiences interact with both niche anime distributors and with major media conglomerates about their various products. It would be very interesting (perhaps you do this in the rest of the thesis) to compare convention-oriented fandoms with fandoms where producers and audiences do not come together in a convention atmosphere because it seems to me that those arenas in which producers must show up to promote and defend their properties have a different moral economy than those in which the entertainment is a product rather than a shared enterprise.

  2. Dora T. says:

    Very fascinating! This crystallises a few things for me with regard to a fandom’s responses to changes in its source text. Those responses often make it very clear what is or is not perceived as a violation of the implicit contract, and it highlights how differently the various sections of a fandom perceive the implicit contract.

  3. Scott Ellington says:

    I believe another entity complicates the production/audience relationship. Both those parts are mediated by the purveyor. Whether the purveyor of entertainment is a hall, a stage, or the auspices of a multi-national corporation, the salability of the production and the affordability of the entertainment are only secondarily the concern of the content provider and the audience. It’s the house (the boxoffice/gatekeeper) that greatly complicates the contract between them, by requiring compensation for the opportunity to mediate between the naturally sympthetic poles of players and audience.